By Marisa Taylor and Margaret Talev
WASHINGTON - The Bush administration agreed Thursday not to oppose legislation that would eliminate the attorney general's power to appoint interim U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation.
The reversal by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales comes after weeks of controversy over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys and after Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., criticized Gonzales and the administration for their handling of the ousters of the Republican appointees.
The administration's retreat isn't likely to end the controversy, however. Two top Democrats on the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee sent a letter to the Justice Department demanding documents on the prosecutors' ousters and interviews with department officials. The Senate Judiciary Committee is preparing to subpoena at least five high-ranking department officials to testify about the matter.
The firings have become an embarrassment for the Justice Department and for two lawmakers and a congressional aide who're accused of trying to interfere with federal investigations of Democrats.
On Tuesday, six of the ousted U.S. attorneys testified before a House subcommittee and the Senate Judiciary Committee that they were never given any specific reasons for why they were fired. Two of them described interactions with members of Congress about criminal cases, which Democrats have said could demonstrate that the prosecutors' removals were motivated by partisan politics.
Democrats had seized on the testimony to question whether the White House may have been more actively involved in the effort to oust certain prosecutors and replace them with administration loyalists.
Senators announced the administration's decision to not oppose the legislation following the conclusion of a closed-door meeting at the Capitol with Gonzales.
Aides said the attorney general met for about an hour with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Specter, who was committee chairman when the changes were made to the Patriot Act last year. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who's leading the panel's investigation of the prosecutors' firings, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who sponsored the legislation that would restore the previous rules governing the replacement of U.S. attorneys, also attended.
Specter said he didn't know whether Tuesday's testimony had an impact on Gonzales' decision.
"There's no question that the (judiciary) committee needs to get more information and no question we need to go back to the old statute, and we're moving in both of those directions," Specter said in an interview.
Other Republicans also weren't satisfied with Gonzales' explanation for the firings.
"It has been handled so poorly. It needs to come out - what was done and why," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. "I am looking into exactly who I think is responsible."
Justice Department officials did not return calls Thursday night.
Republicans had blocked passage of Feinstein's legislation in the Senate for weeks.
The decision to fire the U.S. attorneys first came under scrutiny in late January after Senate Democrats discovered that Gonzales could use a little-noticed change in the Patriot Act to fill vacancies with interim U.S. attorneys for indefinite terms without Senate approval.
While Republicans have mostly defended President Bush against accusations of politicizing the Justice Department, more are voicing concerns about the way the prosecutors' removals have been handled.
Earlier in the day, Specter made waves when he suggested publicly that Gonzales might not last in his job through the end of Bush's term.
© 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.